Friday, 9 September 2011

The Wars in Vietnam and Iraq

Our guest blogger today is historian Dr. David L Anderson, author of "The Lowdown: A Short History of the Origins of the Vietnam War." Here he talks about parallels for US involvement in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars...

Much has been written on the comparisons and contrast between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and there are certainly similarities and differences.  When asked in July 2003 about comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld brushed the question aside.  “It’s a different era. It’s a different place,” he asserted.  It is true that U.S. troop levels at any one time in Iraq or Afghanistan never reached the half million that were in Vietnam in 1968-1969 (the majority of whom were draftees).  Consequently and gratefully, the U.S. deaths in the Southwest Asian war have been a tenth of those in the Southeast Asian war.  Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have had a Ho Chi Minh figure, that is, a charismatic national leader backed by an alliance with a nuclear superpower leading the fight against American-supported regimes.  Furthermore, in Iraq the American involvement went from a conventional invasion with General Tommy Franks to counterinsurgency warfare with General David Patraeus, and in Vietnam it was the reverse.  In the Vietnam War, the United States went from Kennedy’s counterinsurgency operations with U.S. advisers and Green Berets to Johnson’s and Nixon’s air bombardments of North Vietnam and creation of a South Vietnamese military of a million men by 1971 (much of it on paper, of course).

The parallels for U.S. involvement in both conflicts, however, were so striking that the lessons of the first should have instructed the second.  They did not.  A favorite political cartoon of mine, which I like to share with students, is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 23, 2007, shortly after President Bush had given a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  The speech was intended to convey the message that the administration intended to stay the course in Iraq and not yield to growing congressional pressure for withdrawal.  In the cartoon, there is a scholarly-looking gentleman with a pointer standing in front of an easel with a map of Vietnam on which is printed “Vietnam Quagmire.”  The scholar is wearing a button that says “Historian,” and he is saying: “The lesson is, we NEVER should’ve gotten . . . .”  At that point his sentence is interrupted by a small figure with large ears sitting in a huge chair behind a large desk with an American flag next to it.  The caricature of the president completes the historian’s sentence by adding the last word: “The lesson is, we NEVER should’ve gotten OUT.”

The Iraq War, of course, began in a different context than Vietnam.  Emotions from the 9/11 attacks remained high from fears of more attacks from unseen terrorists, the administration’s repeated insistence that Saddam Hussein was connected with those attacks, and the terrifying image that Saddam had chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons at his disposal.  The Bush team’s inordinate attention on Saddam turned out to be its own creation with virtually no basis in reality.  It was clear to many realists before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and obvious to most all others soon after the total anarchy that ensued in that country, that Iraq was indeed a reprise of Vietnam.  As Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara came to learn (and Rumsfeld was unwilling to admit), “military force—especially when yielded by an outside power—just cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself.”  In both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, public unrest emerged in America, though muted in the case of Iraq by the absence of a draft and no demand on individual Americans for sacrifice.  In both wars, no definition of victory appeared tenable, there was little allied support for the United States, and duration and cost of the war grew far beyond predictions.  Yet, in both wars, presidents stubbornly persisted in the wars they had initiated.  Mark Twain wryly noted: “With ignorance and confidence, success is sure.” The ignorance, hubris, and bravado of American presidents were common themes in both wars. - David L. Anderson

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